Molly Schuld

STEM Programs and Outreach Specialist

Serving Students Through COVID-19: “hi, Tech” Community Partners Rise to the Challenge

Topics: STEM Outreach.

When I talk about Northwestern Mutual’s hi, Tech program, many people picture my teammates and I hosting job shadows, mentoring sessions and other events for students. What they may not picture is the work of our community partners, who are spearheading their own respective missions. We know that if students return to schools post-COVID-19 where they can’t further explore tech learning and careers, events aren’t enough. Thus, hi, Tech invests grant funds in organizations that are, in turn, investing in building and scaling tech education and experiences for Milwaukee’s K-12 students.

Like my team and I, many of our partner organizations work directly with students, knowing the value of in-person role models and hands-on learning. So when the coronavirus-related restrictions went into place, our partners found themselves at a loss. I immediately reached out to them, in the spirit of true partnership, to communicate two things:

  1. We trust you – not just now, but always. Grant goals and metrics may change, but we know you will do your best to still find a way to drive impact for students.

  2. We encourage collaborative innovation. This crisis presents an opportunity to pivot and get creative, and we would love to learn from you and be thought partners in the process.

The thoughtful responses that came pouring in all had a similar theme: With the challenge of virtually engaging students all day, the equity gaps in device and Wi-Fi access, and the need to ensure students don’t fall behind in the basics (math and reading), STEM education was quickly being put on the back burner – and simply put, our partners weren’t having it. 

They are rising to the challenge with passion and grace, proving now, more than ever, that their intentions start and end with students in mind. They're hustling hard to ensure that the students they serve continue to learn and be engaged, sometimes completely changing their models of delivery to do so.

Because I believe innovation sparks more innovation, I’ll highlight a few of our grantee partners’ stories:

  • Code for Milwaukee brings community changemakers together to build out tech projects that serve the greater Milwaukee area. hi, Tech provided seed funding for the organization to pilot a 10-week internship program for students. The pilot has been able to proceed, mostly because our partners had planned for a digital offering long before COVID-19 was a concern. This led to an increased likelihood that students could remain committed, although device and Wi-Fi access has been a barrier for some (and has been a common barrier and something top-of-mind for all our grant recipients). Code for Milwaukee hopes this program will be scalable to similar chapters across the nation.
  • Girls Who Code (GWC) is typically an in-person, semester-long program for middle and high school girls interested in learning how to code or improve their existing skills. In the wake of COVID-19, several Girls Who Code chapters, including those at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) and UW-Milwaukee, have gone digital – which wasn’t too much of a stretch, as it's computer-based work to begin with. MSOE made registration for its GWC programming available to any student, male or female, who wishes to participate, due to the increased demand for engaging tech education while schools are closed. MSOE and various higher-ed partners are planning to pivot to some virtual and “unplugged” (offline) summer programs, in lieu of in-person activities.
  • Beyond STEM is a local organization working to ensure the "next generation of technology creators matches its consumers." Its flagship program, The Saturday Series, is ordinarily delivered as hands-on, in-person learning aimed at highlighting the impact of engineering on daily life. This program was postponed initially, but due to increased demand (and thanks to inspiration from educators), the organization decided to go above and “beyond.” To ensure material access isn’t a barrier and to prioritize engagement, each week, Beyond STEM packages up and mails out STEM activity kits to every Saturday Series participant. Students then use these kits during live lessons with local mentors.

Beyond STEM activity kits mailed out to students participating in The Saturday Series

  • SHARP Literacy has made one of the most dramatic pivots of our grantee partners amidst Safer-at-Home. Typically, SHARP partners with educators who deliver innovative STEAM-based experiential programs in schools. But now, the organization is delivering content online, directly to students to complete at home with their families. These activities, ranging from paper airplane algorithms and skyscraper engineering to encrypted messages and emoji design challenges, are released multiple times a week and are purposefully designed to be accessible by using materials that can be found around most homes. In addition, the organization is exploring a new, virtual summer curriculum to get kids outside while continuing the STEAM learning with projects that combine coding, gardening and science journaling.

A family captures quantitative data on their prototype after completing SHARP Literacy’s “unplugged” skyscraper engineering challenge

The way we (as in myself and our grant recipients – and all of Milwaukee’s educational leaders, really) respond, or fail to respond, to this crisis will define our students’ futures. I’ve been sleeping better at night knowing that hi, Tech has invested in leaders who are using this crisis as a catalyst for student-centric innovation, and I hope they inspire others to do the same.

Nothing will ever justify the educational equity gaps and learning losses that will continue to haunt us post-pandemic, but here, at least, is a reason to hope. Let’s foster the seeds of innovation that are planted during the current school closings, as they may grow and evolve to finally reshape the education experience for all kids.

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Northwestern Mutual is the largest provider of volunteer computer science co-teachers in southeast Wisconsin this school year through the Microsoft TEALS program. Explore one volunteer’s efforts and insights in introducing computer science to Milwaukee-area students, virtually.

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As high school students without much real-world experience, Naisha Bepar and Hayley Jamiola admit they were nervous about attending Northwestern Mutual’s 2019 “hi, Tech” Minicamp. But just one year later, they've transitioned from participant to instructor. Hear their perspectives on the journey and its value.